Sunday, July 26, 2009

Say what?!?

"Not intended for use as a life saving device" was what the packaging for my infant's outdoor, blow-up pool read. "What?" was my response. After all, who in the world would mistake a blow up pool for a life saving device?

The problem above is not uncommon in the world of business either. One of the best public presenters that I've ever seen, David Barnes, did not earn that accolade because of his enthusiasm. (And he is a very enthusiastic public speaker.) Instead, in spite of the energy level that he had that could power Manhattan for a week, his message was clear as a newly produced pane of glass.

Does this come naturally? There is a common expression that says (paraphrased): "amateurs practice until they get it right, while professionals practice until they cannot get it wrong." While this adage is probably more applicable to situations where you are being questioned (e.g. product demonstrations, job interviews, etc.) the sentiment that you can never practice enough should not go unnoticed.

Occasionally, important situations like meetings spring up unannounced. But even when unannounced they are rarely about topics whose importance is unbeknownst to you. Are you always at DEFCON 1 with regards to these topics? Could you, on a moment's notice, answer even the most pointed questions about their details? Do you take the time to rehearse and rehash possible discussions and how you would frame your responses?

Although my neighbors probably think I'm a mad scientist, whenever I'm out walking my infant around in the stroller, I can always be found talking to myself. I haven't lost my marbles; instead, I have picked my topic du jour and am debating myself on the pro's and con's of it. And while this doesn't guarantee me success should this ever become the topic of discussion, I am already a step ahead in my preparedness.

Being viewed as an intelligent speaker with "all the answers" doesn't have to be an impossible task. But the rewards of leaving such an impression upon others are unmistakeable: people will look to you as the person to go to, thus increasing your worth to the organization. And in these economic times, one can never be worth too much.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Confusion

In early June, I had lunch with the CFO and COO of a mid-sized company that has been experiencing 20% Y/Y top-line revenue growth for the past few years. While waiting for our lunch to arrive, I commented that they must be quite happy with the growth they've experienced in these "tough economic times." (They can't be too tough if companies are still able to experience growth rates like this, eh?)

The COO replied that he was quite happy but that the growth had come at a cost: he is too busy dealing with the current business that they have. As a result, so he is unable to get some longer-term goals accomplished. One of these goals is to write a Standard Operating Procedure manual that would explicitly state the means by which the business operates; the manner by which sales translates into dollars; the method by which paper travels from start to finish.

"You mean you don't have your processes documented currently?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "In fact, some employees use this as justification for their lack of personal accountability. And that is upsetting."

Upsetting indeed. One of the largest reasons for companies failing after growing to a company-specific point is the lack of recognition of one fact: processes are established to ensure that continued growth of the company does not affect its ability to service its customers.

More clearly put, processes exist for two reasons.

1. They define how the company should operate today.

2. They account for future growth, so when that growth happens the company is already operating in a manner that can allowed it to continue to enjoy success.

The net effect of the first item is that, when processes are poorly defined or are not defined at all, the company operates in a less efficient manner; the quality of the output is not predictable and can possibly waver below normally accepted thresholds; and ultimately the company ends up assuming the burden of unnecessary risk. This could have far reaching effects, since not only could this materially affect the bottom line but some industries have to abide by government regulations where incarceration is the penalty for not following them.

To see why the second item is important, consider another example.

There once existed (note the use of past tense) a company that had a good sales process defined. But as the company grew, existing customers started dropping because the Account Managers were ignoring them to pursue new sales opportunities. (No post-sales account management roles or responsibilities had been established.)

Because the Professional Services division was ad hoc in nature, when customers balked at the price of the deal the Account Managers immediately reduced the number of days for Service Delivery that were sold, which resulted in poor implementations. (There was no formal methodology for delivering the product that was sold so the sales teams could not appreciate the importance of this aspect of the sale.)

Finally, there were no good provisions for training new Account Managers so that they could start producing as quickly as possible. (This one is less obvious. When the company was smaller, it enjoyed top-line Y/Y revenue growth of 70%+. However, as the company grew accordingly the ability for it to scale was mortally hampered by the lack of good training for the new hires. Instead, they were put into a one week class, sometimes with no prior exposure to the product, and then were expected to meet a USD$2mm annual quota.)

As you can imagine, the company eventually faultered and, after the sales organization missed their annual quota by nearly 40%, ultimately ceased to exist.

The point that I have hopefully made is that, even though there is an investment of time and effort to understand and document the correct way that your business should operate now and in the next 1-2 years, the payoff is significant. Not only will you be able to operate at increased capacities due to the elimination of inefficiencies, but you will also have happier customers because the fruits of the labors of your business will be better as a result.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Growth by acquisition

When Oracle announced in late April that it would buy Sun Microsystems it shocked more than a few people. Tom In, Managing Director and Portfolio Manager at Alkeon Capital Management, obviously had his own thoughts on the matter. Paraphrased, he recalled to me over lunch the other notable acquisitions that Oracle had made: Primavera, PeopleSoft, and BEA to name a few.

During our discussion, we noted several possible combinations of acquired assets that could be used depending on what their corporate strategy is. Oracle is hardly the first company to take this approach either. BMC, HP, CA, Microsoft and several others have been known to base their growth on the purchasing of other companies rather than grow organically. Why do this? Generally, their mindset in situations like this is that it's quicker to buy than build; if you purchase companies that are best in their respective fields you can fill holes in your corporate strategy much more quickly.

On a personal level, we all have goals we have set for ourselves. But instead of learning from corporate America, I have frequently found that people rarely give any consideration as to how they intend to reach those goals. I'm sure you all know where you want to be, but do you have any idea how you will get there?

In the game of 8-ball (pool), the prevailing philosophy is that you start from the end of the game and work backwards, i.e. determine what shot you need to make so that you can make the winning shot; then determine what shot you need to make to make the previously mentioned shot; etc. If you know where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years, doesn't it behoove you to figure out how to position yourself to be there at that time and then work backwards?

As a specific example, suppose you envision yourself as the CEO of a company but you are "only" in IT at the moment. What "shots" do you need to make, i.e. what types of skills do you need to acquire, to move yourself into a position to actually grab the brass ring?

After you've answered that, you need to determine how you plan to acquire those skills. Will you go back to school and get your MBA? Take different types of jobs to get Business Development, Sales, Marketing, etc. experience? The choices are yours to make, but until you not only make those decisions but also execute them successfully you won't go anywhere quickly.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's in your network?

I once posed the following question on a LinkedIn discussion group: "what is the point of having a network of 1,000 people or so?" What ensued was a segregation of people into two groups of people that strongly believed in their answer.

On one side were the people that felt casting the widest net was the best option. Not only that, but one can always help others in need since you will undoubtedly have someone in your network that is able to assist.

On the other side were the people that felt having members of their network that knew them personally ensured that the network had value in its own right since your endorsement carried more weight. After all, they reasoned, everyone in the network has (theoretically) seen first hand what you can do so there is value in your word as a professional.

Regardless of your opinion one thing is true: staying on the radar of everyone in your network is crucial for continued success and career movement. This isn't fashion where "one day you're in and the next you're out." (Sorry Heidi.) It actually requires effort (or a lack thereof) to have people forget about you, but once they do it takes 10x the effort to get them to remember you again.

Consider the following: when I was younger, I had a good friend who was a technical writer at IBM. I stopped calling them for over a year, but one day I needed the contact information from another person I knew at IBM. So I called them up and asked for the information. I could almost see the distaste on that person's face as they told me they couldn't find what I needed. I never called them again because there was definitely an air of hostility - "how come I only hear from you when you need something?" - in that person's voice.

But stay on everyone's network, and the result looks like this: at one point in my career I was told that I was to be affected by a 45% reduction in force. Because I had stayed in close contact with my network, I was able to reach out to them and secure 8 interviews within the first 2 weeks.

What is "staying in close contact?" Is it every week? Month? Quarter? Year? And is it acceptable to email them or is phone required? Your mileage may vary, but the guideline I have always used is to reach out once every quarter via email to give them an update on my life and ask them how they are doing. And it seems to have worked for me in the past, so I'm not going to change what isn't broken.

Putting your network to work for you in a pinch can be a real lifesaver. Like an automobile, it needs regular maintenance and some general TLC. But there's no better way to get from point A to point B in your professional life than driving down the interstate of your career with the top down, the radio blaring, and your network in the seat beside you.